Montgomery County

Pepe and Purtell set to square off for Montgomery County legislature chairman

Party means little in chairman race
Michael J. Pepe, left, and Robert A. Purtell
Michael J. Pepe, left, and Robert A. Purtell

MONTGOMERY COUNTY — A two-man race for Chairman of the Montgomery County Legislature appears set for the county’s Jan. 7 organizational meeting. 

The defeat of Democrat District 3 Legislator Roy Dimond by challenger Republican John Thayer in November removed a key supporter of current Legislature Chairman Robert Headwell, sparking a race to succeed him between Republican District 7 Legislator Michael Pepe and Democrat District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell.

“I would certainly like to be chairman, I think I have the attributes to do it,” Purtell said. “You can certainly never count your chickens before they’ve hatched.” 

Pepe, who serves as the legislature’s finance committee chairman, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Several legislators said they intend to support Pepe. 

Headwell, a Republican representing District 4, was elected to his second consecutive term as legislature chairman in January. Headwell is the first person to serve consecutive terms as the leader of the county’s legislative body since voters approved the county executive/legislature form of government in 2014. Before that no elected official in Montgomery County had dared to attempt to serve consecutive terms as chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors since former 3rd Ward Supervisor Ron Barone, a Republican, held the chairmanship for four consecutive terms from 1999 until 2003, during which he received the nickname “King Barone.”

Unlike most legislative bodies in New York state, and throughout the rest of the U.S., political party holds little influence over who leads the legislature in Montgomery County. Although the Democrats have always been technically in the minority on the county legislature — now holding two of nine seats after Dimond’s defeat — there have been three Democrats who’ve served as legislature chairman: former District 2 Legislator Thomas Quackenbush, former District 5 Legislator and current Democratic Election Commissioner Terry Bieniek and Dimond. The other three chairmanships since the new government was formed were held by Republicans: one term for District 1 Legislator Martin Kelly and two for Headwell. 

Several legislators said a third consecutive term as chairman for Headwell is now considered “a nonstarter” by legislators. 

Both Purtell and Pepe appear to have bipartisan support on the small board. 

“Both Purtell and Pepe are excellent representatives. They both work hard and do a good job, but I do appreciate the job Mike Pepe does with finances, and I think he’s ready for [the chairmanship],” said Democrat and District 6 Legislator John Duchessi. “It’s hard when you make a choice like that, because somebody always gets hurt by it, but I think Mike Pepe should be rewarded for the work he’s done, if he’s interested.” 

District 5 Legislator Daniel Wilson, a Republican, said he’s supporting Pepe. 

“I’ve already committed to Pepe, because he was the first one to ask me, and I think they’re both very qualified, but Mike was the first one to ask me,” Wilson said. “Pepe is outstanding with the finance committee, and a very, very intelligent man, but both guys are outstanding, so it’s fairly hard.”

Pepe has received kudos for other legislators and County Executive Matt Ossenfort for his work with the county’s “dashboard” expense and revenue tracking program, which is often projected onto an overhead screen used by the legislature during finance and budget committee meetings.

Purtell has garnered a reputation for being a dissenting vote on some county resolutions, stating, at times, that he prefers legislation not to be unanimous. Purtell was the only legislator who voted against Headwell getting a second term, giving a speech stating consecutive legislature chairmanships violates the spirit of the county’s new form of government. 

Purtell said if he’s elected chairman he intends to make certain all county committee meetings are streamed live on the internet, and he wants to make improved communication one of the hallmarks of his chairmanship.

“That’s communication between legislators and communication between the legislators and the public,” he said. “Even though we often have a poor turn-out to our meetings, with today’s technology people should be able to view us live on the Internet, so then they can be more informed.”

District 8 Legislator Joseph Isabel, a Republican, said he thinks he will likely be one of the “swing votes” in the chairman’s race. 

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Isabel said. “There will be a new chairman. I’ve worked with Bob very well over the course of my last three years, and I’m inclined to support him for chairman.” 

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